Teacher naive, but not a nutty socialist

A local teacher named Sharon Stephens recently wrote a letter to this newspaper in which she outlined her platform if she were to run for president. She covered five basic areas: poverty, criminal justice, illegal drugs, taxes and education.

Stephens' positions are decidedly left of center. Naturally, a few days later the Review-Journal's more conservative readers weighed in, ridiculing the teacher's views as "nutty" and derived from the "Karl Marx School of Education."

Well, as one often unfairly accused in these pages of taking my orders from the Kremlin, I thought I'd examine Ms. Stephens' platform and determine for myself whether, as one reader suggested, she lives in "La La Land."

Stephens advocates "jobs with livable pay." She argues that the current minimum wage is not "livable," and she is absolutely correct on this point. Although the federal minimum wage recently increased -- and Nevada's is even higher -- it's still below a wage on which one can live independently.

Unfortunately, instead of offering a reasonable alternative, say $8 or $9 per hour, Stephens says the minimum wage should be $15. As much as I sympathize with her desire to raise the living standards of our most needy citizens, Stephens is being unrealistic here. Not only is it not going to happen, but raising the minimum wage to that level could devastate many businesses across the country.

Instead of jails and prisons, Stephens says, we should have "recovery centers" and "a program for every kind of mental illness." Again, her sentiments are headed in the right direction. The United States incarcerates tens of thousands of people for long terms who would be better off receiving proper treatment for drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness. This is well-recognized, though tragically underfunded, primarily because of the conventional wisdom that politicians must be "tough on crime" to get elected.

That said, Stephens is misguided if she thinks we can do away entirely with jails and prisons. Certain individuals constitute legitimate dangers to society and deserve to be punished for heinous crimes.

As a teacher who has spent most or all of her career working in poverty-ridden neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Stephens says she abhors the "devastating effects" of drug abuse. She would "stop cocaine and crack from coming into this nation."

This is a laudable goal, for sure, though the evidence indicates it's just about impossible to achieve. Stephens does not explain how this would be accomplished, except to suggest that "people in high places of power" are profiting from the misery of drug abuse among people of color.

On this issue, Stephens has adopted a widely shared belief that African-Americans are being "kept down" and manipulated through the infusion of illegal drugs into black communities. In fact, the late San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb alleged that the CIA was involved in trafficking cocaine to Los Angeles gangs in the 1980s as a way to finance the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

But as troubling as that allegation is, the "victimization" mentality is a cop-out, conveniently transferring blame from an individual's poor choices to a vague conspiracy that's impossible to pinpoint.

Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on law enforcement efforts to combat illegal drug trafficking -- with meager results at best. Stephens is essentially right: The smarter money is on prevention and treatment.

An income tax system with no "loopholes, deductions or anything else" is also on Stephens' agenda. She suggests a progressive tax structure, with a twist certain to raise the hackles of any and all upwardly mobile Americans: Any income over $250,000 would go straight to the IRS.

I'm all for progressive taxation. Those who make more should pay more. But I have to draw the line at putting a hard cap on my earning potential. As much as I'd like to see every American attain a basic standard of living, it's neither realistic nor desirable to prevent particularly talented, hard-working or lucky individuals from enjoying the fruits of their success. Tax 'em progressively, but don't stifle the initiative that has been a cornerstone of the American success story.

Finally, Stephens supports "free education" through two years of college or trade school. Basically, she would extend the current system by two years -- a fairly modest proposal. I would endorse methods to make higher education extremely affordable, if not free, for all high school graduates. This, in fact, should be a top priority for chambers of commerce across the country. The United States is losing its competitive edge to many other countries that place a greater value on education.

My verdict on the Sharon Stephens presidential platform? A little naive, for sure, but her heart's in the right place. Often impractical, but not more so than the hard-core libertarians at the other end of the political spectrum who want to privatize the schools, the police and anything else they think Enron, Halliburton, etc., should get their hands on.

Does Stephens deserve to be castigated as a nutty socialist? Hardly. Placed in proper political and historical context, her calls for raising the minimum wage, restructuring the tax system, expanding drug treatment programs and providing free college education are pretty tame. She makes no mention of nationalizing industries or banks.

The closest she comes to a socialist thought is her passing reference to "homes for all," a worthy goal that actually represented mainstream thinking during the Great Society era. Even under the very conservative Bush administration, the government operates an extensive public housing program.

Clearly, Stephens is undisciplined in her political thinking, but that only means she is like 90 percent of the American electorate. Most Americans have barely half-formed opinions about what should and should not be done to improve the country. Everyone ought to take a crack at jotting down his or her own ideal presidential platform. The results might be surprising. People who consider themselves conservative might discover some liberal tendencies, and vice versa.

All things considered, I found Stephens' letter more thought-provoking than much of the incremental, equivocating space-filler written about politics these days. Those who wrote in to attack her were prompted to think about fundamental questions facing the country. That's a far more worthwhile discussion topic than Hillary Clinton's cleavage or whether Barack Obama is "black enough."

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is Stephens Media's director of community publications. He is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and, coming in February, "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.